The Race: Page 2

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Page 1

The Danbury Rod & Reel Club

Founded in 1953, the club now boasts 30 members, "with a waiting list."

Blue collars, white collars, T-shirts, firemen, prison guards, state workers, retirees, small business owners and users. Chevy, Fords, Jeeps, baseball caps, polarized fishing sunglasses, long cigars and rough hands marked by long hours of hard work.

Guys you like.

Guys who tie each other up with fishing wire when one falls asleep. Guys who stay at a nearby casino the night before and call down to the front desk to ask for a wake-up call answer the question, "And, sir, at what time would you like that call?" by saying, calmly, "In 15 minutes." And they get it.

Guys who, even after eight hours give you only about 10 minutes of quotes you can actually print. ("Hey, D.B.," I kept hearing. "That one would be the end of your career, huh?" Oh, yeah.)

Ball-busters, these. "So what are you going to be fishing for today?" I ask. I'm being a serious fishing writer here.

Rich Frampton, one of several past presidents of the club: "Fish."

Me: "Ah, huh, and what exactly will you be using?"

Rich: "Fishing poles."

And these guys LIKE ME. Going to be a long day on the boat.

Bob snaps a photo of two of the club members, sleeping.

The Race is a watery turnpike for striped bass going back to their breeding grounds in the sound during the spring. In fall they head back out the same way to winter in the ocean.

The daily creel limit is two per angler with a minimum length of 28 inches. Bluefish are limited to a creel limit of 10 a day, no minimum size.

From port side: "Hey, I just joined the five-buck club."

Rich: "We use 8-ounce Diamond Jigs, and if one gets snagged and you lose it you have to pay five bucks ON THE SPOT to get another one."

Over his shoulder I see Bob shoot a picture of a guy with his wallet out. Behind me, Steve says, "Damn, last year I lost 10, 11, maybe 12 of them, cost me $65 bucks. I had to borrow money to get off the boat."

On cue, everyone within earshot toasts him.

Suddenly, all the tables inside the cabin fill. A cribbage board appears, sandwiches get unwrapped, cigars are pulled out of a cooler. Seems the whole club is inside.

"Slack tide," says Dave Travis, another past president. "Dead tide, lunch time."

Between tides, the Race becomes like glass. One moment we're in 4-foot seas; the next, nothing.

Travis explains the tides: "Two different water currents meet going in different directions, the turbulence stirs things up, the bait fish come to feed on what comes off the bottom, and that draws the stripers and blues in to feed on the bait fish."

Rich: "You watch the birds, they'll tell you where the fish are. The seagulls will feed on the bait fish on top of the water, the stripers and blue will be under the bait fish feeding on them from below."

A guy with a roast beef sandwich: "I'd hate to be a bait fish. Screwed from above, screwed from below."

From the guy at the table across from him in between chewing on fried chicken: "Hate to tell you dude, you work for the state, YOU ARE A BAIT FISH."

On cue, everyone toasts.

Fishing The Race

Every 10 minutes or so there's a loud blast of the ship's horn. And the race on The Race begins. "Lines up!" shouts either mate one, two or three. And the drift starts.

"The captain is pulling out of The Race," says Rich. "Then he comes around and drifts back into The Race. You do that over and over again." Along with every other boat out there, and there are many.

"You don't realize when you are sitting out there how fast and how far you are drifting," chirps Mark Lapke, the current president. "You drop your line and it flies out. It doesn't seem it, but the boat is really moving very fast in the drift."

As if on cue, with the waves building, a loud bang goes off, as I'm looking around for a life jacket, a shout comes from the back of the boat: "Someone just boated a steelhead!"

Noticing my — how should I say? — PANIC, Travis leans over my shoulder and whispers, "Just a Diamond Jig hitting the side of the aluminum boat."

Travis, later on after I'm sort of calm: "We use a jigging rod with a jigging reel, 60-pound test line, and an 8-ounce Diamond Jig. You drop the Diamond Jig to the bottom then reel it up quick, about 15 to 20 turns. When it comes off the bottom it shakes like an eel would coming out of the grass, and the stripers and blues hit it thinking it's an eel. You jig it up, crank down, jig up, jerk it off the bottom about 20 feet. Do that over and over."

Everyone on board BUT Bob and I catch fish — but to be fair they have rods and reels, while we just had two cameras, a pen, and half a roast beef sandwich between us.

Stripers and blues are landing on board all over the place, at one time Ronnie "Foo-Foo" Eastwood (a nickname derived from a legendary tale of Ice Fishing and Blackberry Brandy — a "woman's drink" that saying more about would get me in HR for about a week) shouts above the wail of the drag: "She's running — must be from Long Island." After 15 minutes of fight, pole bent at an angle not covered in the warranty, he boats "another Steelhead!"

A portside toast rings out.

Up and down the boat you can see burlaps sacks on the deck (cost, $2 each on the spot) some jumping around, others not. Once the catch is made, mate 1, 2, or 3 runs up, take the fish off the hook and stuffs it in a bag at your feet.

The striper bags seem to jump around the most and for the longest time. Inside are huge, fat (probably pissed off) fish with three stripes running from head to fin — my guess, that's why they're not called "plaids."

The blues in burlap just kind of lay there, no respect given or taken. I mean, these aren't exactly goldfish — at 18 to 20 pounds they were enough to make a half-dozen cats happy for a solid week. But when you take a picture of a guy with a striper, the fish is held up proud and high, and the guy pushes his baseball cap all the way back so the world can see his grin.

The blues photos look like, "Yeah I caught a fish, take the frigging picture and let me get back to fishing." (Should there be a Blues are Beautiful fan club somewhere out there: The guys in Arkansas MADE me put this in here so send the fish heads to THEM not me, thank you.)

Fish are flying everywhere, guys are yelling, bags are flopping, when I hear: "D.B., look to port … God, almighty."

Expertly I swing around and stare straight into a life ring.

"The other port."

And as I turn I find myself staring at something that looks like a small black boat about midway to the horizon, and I'm thinking those guys have to be nuts to be out here on this swirling cauldron of … then the boat thing gets bigger.

And bigger, taller actually, and then with almost 30 years of experience in the business of trying to say important sounding things this is what I say: "Holy crap."

I drop this journalistic pearl because as I'm watching, what I think is a tiny boat turns out to be a nuclear submarine breaking the surface. I've just watched a submarine conning tower rise above the water, and I'm not hearing the "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" theme. This is real stuff.

From along the deck I hear people say that in 10, 12, 15 years of doing this they have never seen anything like this, even with the U.S. sub base in Groton, Conn., nearby. From someone who sounded like he knew: "The Race channel is so deep the subs use it to shoot out into the Atlantic to go fight the Commies."

Then, for a moment, on my side of the MiJoy 747, all was quiet, as those leaning on the rail, young, old, very old, gave a silent toast for all those fighting the Commies as we watched the sub cruise out to sea. God speed, my friends.

The Race in the rear view mirror
Back on land, legs all jiggly from eight hours at sea, I find out that the biggest striper caught that day was 37 inches long and tipped the scales at about 25 pounds. The biggest blue, 31 inches, 16 to 18 pounds.

In all, most of the guys caught at least a striper or blue. One guy caught a starfish, another guy, a rock with barnacle stuff all over it. And this trip, Steve didn't need to borrow any money to get off the boat.

Even after all day fishing, within the shadow of the docked boat, under the shade of a tall pine tree, nobody got in their cars right away. They all lingered, and talked of The Race.

Fishing The Race 101, as taught by the Danbury Rod and Reel crew:

"You've got to pick the right tide. You need a moving tide. You don't want a slack tide, you need to be here when the water is moving. Thank God for tide charts."

"Those Diamond Jigs, when they jerk up and down, you really don't have to set the hook when it's moving up. But did you feel it disappear when something hits it when it's moving down? It like weightless, but it's in the fish's mouth. That's when you have to crank up fast to set the hook."

"Next time I come I'm going to bring a bunch of different weight Diamond Jigs because if the water starts screaming down there you can't get a light lure on the bottom. Won't catch me here without a bunch all the way up to 16 ounces."

"Hey, s***. We need a group photo."

So back on board they all go, line up on one side of the MiJoy 747, smile, puff on stogies, toast the camera pointed their way. Snap, snap again, one for the clubhouse wall.

As I'm packing my gear and Dramamine back up, Rodger Sperling (yep, another Past President) comes over next to me and collapses down on the dockside picnic bench. Arms, legs, back moving every which way.

"Man, D.B., my shoulders, wrists, knees, back — they're killing me. Dang it all, don't you just love fishing?"

Don Barone is a feature producer for ESPN. Other stories of his are available on Amazon.com. You can reach him at Don.Barone@espn.com.

P.S.: And if you're wondering … Bob never blew lunch. This time.